Harvard: The View From Inside

But that's not to say there aren't real advantages to Harvard's academic life. You might have trouble tracking down Af-Am guru Henry Louis "Skip" Gates Jr. or former Reagan economic adviser Martin S. Feldstein '61 in person, but you can sit in on their lectures. (Though why you'd want to sit in on Marty's lectures is beyond us.)

And there are a wealth of professors you haven't heard of yet but will come to relish: Helen H. Vendler in English, Robert D. Levin '68 in music, Marc D. Hauser in cognitive neuroscience, Robert Coles '50 in psychology.

The amount of personal contact you'll have with them, though, depends on how hard you're willing to try. Most professors claim that they love office hours and that their doors are always open. But undergrads are often too busy--or intimidated--to bother.


Most courses taught by superstars are huge Core classes with hundreds of students. A Core course is like watching a lecture on TV, but with uncomfortable seats and lousy audio. In these classes, the real teaching is done by teaching fellows (TFs), who range from the superb to the non-English-speaking. Shop around.

Sometimes you'll find yourself in seminars with only a handful of students. These can be excellent, unless you haven't cracked the binding on your overpriced books from the Coop. Shocking as it might seem, students are occasionally unprepared for class, choosing one more slice at Tommy's House of Pizza rather than reading those last hundred pages of Bleak House.

Across the board, advising is a crapshoot. Some lucky souls land the jackpot, scoring a full professor with time on her hands, but don't count on anything more than a confused graduate student. Research the labyrinthine academic bureaucracy for yourself and start thinking soon. At the end of your first year, you'll have to choose a concentration (calling it a "major" is just too plebian).

Harvard is best known for its largest departments, economics and government, popular with the Adidas set (they don't call 'em gov jocks for nothing). These departments are vast and impersonal but have blessedly lax requirements. Or you could go a more obscure route--Folklore and Mythology, anyone?

Science concentrators are among the hardest workers here--but beware of intro courses that pit you against the Westinghouse Finalist in the grade curve wars. Interdisciplinary choices like History and Literature and Social Studies win praise for their freedom, but with you-can't-hide tutorials, be sure you looove Lamont Library.

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